In the history of complex land transfers in Montana, the Legacy Project stands alone. From the Swan Valley south of Glacier to Lolo Creek next to the Idaho stateline, much of western Montana was impacted in one way or another by this historic deal involving the Plum Creek timber company, the Trust for Public Land, the Nature Conservancy and state and federal land management agencies. Nearly all of the 310,000 acres of former Plum Creek lands will have shifted into public ownership once the last of the Legacy Project’s three phases concludes, which is expected later this year. We asked a few Montanans with close ties to the lands covered by the historic agreement what it will mean for the state’s future.
Not a lot has changed in Montana’s rural Potomac Valley over the years. And that’s just fine for many of the multi-generational ranching families whose livelihoods are tied to this expanse of waving grass and trees drained by the lower Blackfoot River northeast of Missoula.
Today, just as it was nearly a century ago, the Potomac is a working landscape.
But faced with the possibility of large-scale changes sweeping across this broad valley and on to the low and rounded Garnet Range to the south, the valley’s ranchers did something that may surprise some. They got behind the transfer of tens of thousands of private acres in the Garnets—lands they’ve grazed their cattle on and cut timber from for decades—to the state of Montana.
The Potomac ranchers faced a stark set of choices. Either accept a future where their access to prime grazing lands is threatened by residential development or embrace an alternative that keeps the landscape whole.
So, in a place where politics generally fall on the conservative side of the spectrum, they backed the state’s purchase of most of the range’s north-facing slopes. The handwriting was on the wall, said Denny Iverson, a longtime rancher and logger from the Potomac.
“I am not opposed to development,” he said. “More neighbors doesn’t necessarily scare me. We just didn’t need them way back up in the hills.”
Iverson’s lived in this valley for 35 years. The land in question is critical for two of his neighbors, ranches with summer grazing operations. It’s where they trail their cattle into the range’s higher pastures. Though he doesn’t actually graze his cattle on these lands himself, but largely on his family’s private ground in the valley, it is also critical for Iverson’s other job, that of a logger. When he’s not tending his cows, Iverson is often out working in the same woods.
Splitting the lower Garnets into multiple private parcels could have made both activities all but impossible.
“It would have been a fragmented landscape at best,” Iverson said.
Travelers headed on to better-known outdoor destinations in western Montana often overlook the Garnet Range. The area’s one true draw is the Garnet ghost town.
Because of its relative obscurity, the backroads and timbered ridgelines are generally left to those living in the Potomac Valley. Generations of local residents have worked and played in the Garnets, whose role as a working landscape stretches back to at least the early 1900s.
Early on, the Nature Conservancy recognized the economic significance of the Garnets for the Potomac community as it went about deciding which Plum Creek lands they’d like to include in the Montana Legacy Project. Ignoring the important role these lands play in terns of the valley’s economy just wouldn’t work, the conservation organization concluded.
To succeed here, however, the organization would have to take an approach that balanced the needs of wildlife and rural residents. They recognized that the Garnet Range could continue supporting wildlife as long as it remained a working forest.
At least one radio-collared grizzly from the nearby Mission Mountains has been tracked crossing the Potomac Valley into the Garnet Range in recent years. So far, the bears have lived peaceably alongside their ranching neighbors. More and more development would have changed that picture. “The true impact is residential development,” said Chris Bryant, the Nature Conservancy’s Western Montana Director of Outreach in Missoula.
Preserving the area meant selling the community on turning private timberlands over to the state. Luckily, the Nature Conservancy had a proven track record among residents.
With the Blackfoot Community Project, arguably the organization’s biggest success in Montana prior to the Legacy Project, the Nature Conservancy managed to transfer 89,000 acres of former Plum Creek lands in the Blackfoot and Clearwater drainages into a mixture of public and private ownership. It was just one component of the larger Blackfoot Challenge, a partnership of local landowners that’s gained widespread notoriety for its successful efforts to tackle issues like invasive weeds, finding ways to live alongside grizzly bears and gray wolves and preserving the area’s rural way of life.
“That trust was already built in,” Iverson explained.
Without the 89,000 Blackfoot Community acres, the 310,000-acre Legacy Project would not have been possible, said Gary Burnett, the Blackfoot Challenge’s executive director. Lessons learned on the Blackfoot set the stage for the significantly more complicated agreement offered by the Legacy Prioject, he said.
“A lot of things could go wrong in that process,” Burnett added.
Because the Nature Conservancy never intended to retain ownership of the Legacy Project lands in the Garnets, the organization turned to the Potomac community to help determine who could best manage the land out its backdoor. Under the banner of the Potomac Working Group, Iverson and more than a dozen other local residents agreed to sit down to discuss the ultimate disposition of the acreage.
Because the Garnet Range contains no Forest Service lands, federal ownership was quickly ruled out. Transferring the lands to the U.S. government would have been a tough sell in the Potomac area. What the Garnets did have were parcels of state trust land mixed in with the former Plum Creek holdings.
“The community really came out in favor of state ownership,” said Iverson. “It keeps it open for hunting, keeps it open for recreating and keeps it open for grazing.”
But would Montana state legislators agree to the purchase? In 2009, the question was put to them in the form of House Bill 674, which, if passed, would have authorized the state to sell $21 million in general obligation bonds to fund the purchase of the Plum Creek lands in the Garnets. The Department of Natural Resources and Conservation (DNRC), the agency in charge of managing Montana’s system of state forests, would take ownership of the land under the legislation.
In a time of declining state revenues, the bill’s chances before the legislature and on the governor’s desk were far from certain.
But it passed, thanks in large part to the back-to-back trips Potomac residents made to the state capital to testify in favor of the purchase. Iverson was among those who traveled to Helena.
“I don’t know if it would have ever gone through the legislature like it did without the community support behind it,” he said. “There were 70-some people that showed up for the first hearing. People continued to go over and lobby individual legislators to get their vote, get them onboard.
“We had to keep telling them the story of this landscape and how important it was to the community to keep it intact.”
A WORKING LANDSCAPE KEPT WHOLE
Every summer since the 1930s, the Wills family has turned their livestock out to pasture in the Garnets. The family tradition began with W.K. Wills, who began grazing sheep in the Potomac area to help feed the area’s miners.
Today, the family grazes 185 hereford and black angus cattle on the former Plum Creek allotments. The Wills are part of the Bonita, Clinton, Potomac Grazing Association, which negotiates grazing leases in the mixed-ownership Garnet Range.
Heather Wills, a fourth-generation member of the family and the great-granddaughter of the late W.K. Wills, believes the Legacy Project is the Potomac Valley’s best chance of holding on to its rural heritage. She gladly testified before the state legislature in favor of H.B. 674. “The community was built on timber and agriculture,” Wills said. “I hope to see that continue to be its legacy.”
According to Tony Liane, the area manager for the DNRC’s southwest land office in Missoula, the state’s purchase of the former Plum Creek lands in the Garnets will allow that to happen. He said the purchase should be finalized sometime in October.
“That land has been grazed and will continue to be grazed,” Liane said. “We made that commitment to the grazing association.”
In all, the DNRC is poised to take over more than 32,000 acres in the Garnets.
Years of heavy logging by Plum Creek and other previous owners of the land will mean something different for its immediate value as a timber resource, however. Liane said it will be at least 10 to 15 years before the DNRC authorizes any large-scale thinning projects on the former Plum Creek lands.
“It’s going to be quite some time before substantial logging takes place,” he said.
By that time, the land should be Montana’s newest state forest, with a name yet to be determined. Officials will likely look to local geography for help. Residents are pushing for it to be called the Potomac State Forest.
Can any lessons can be gleaned from the Potomac experience? Iverson thinks so. Despite the differences Westerners may have on controversial issues related to the land, there’s almost always room for discussion, he said.
In the Potomac, it came down to a belief shared by conservationists and rural residents that keeping the land intact and unsubdivided was important.
“That’s why the Nature Conservancy wanted the Blackfoot Challenge involved in this process,” Iverson said. “They knew we would try to find common ground.”
ALSO IN THIS SERIES